Internet Governance Surrendering National Sovereignty to Information Policy

Global Centre Stage

The Internet revolution really means that public communication is no longer a domain subject to national sovereignty. It is a fully globalised arena where national boundaries are irrelevant and people can, in the famous words of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘seek, receive and impart information through any medium regardless of frontiers.’ In this new world, sovereignty belongs not to the state, but to the individual users of the Internet, insists Dr Milton L Mueller, who suggests the formation of an alliance among transnational civil society and business to confront the pressures from national governments to control the Internet

A revolution in communication-information policy has been caused by the rise of the Internet. A broad range of public policy issues – freedom of expression, privacy, transnational crime, the security of states, intellectual property, and trade – have all become part of the discussion of Internet governance.

Why has this happened? There are three unique features of the Internet that make it a revolutionary force in communications policy. These include its distributed control; an architecture that does not align with sovereign states; and digital convergence.

Decentralised and Distributed

It is actually a mistake to speak of 'the' Internet. There is no such thing. There are only software protocols for internetworking among different devices and networks. The Internet protocols were designed to make it possible for an unlimited number of independently managed networks to interoperate without centralised management. Consequently, operational control over the Internet is highly distributed and decentralised. There are now about 50,000 distinct ‘autonomous systems’ (independently managed networks) formally registered on the Internet. Billions of users and three times as many devices are connected to these, and the number keeps growing. The devices are increasingly intelligent and programmable. Add to this the still rapid pace of technological change, as new applications and new business models come along every month. Greater mobility and improvements in bandwidth, processing power and user interfaces are still going on.

There is no centralised institution or global government with coercive power over all these networks, devices and standards. There is only a set of open, non-proprietary protocols and standards that enable global communication. This means that communication and information policy is characterised by levels of complexity and interdependence never before seen in history.

The Globalised Virtual Space

A second change brought about by internetworking is equally profound. The borders of these networks and authority over their administration do not align with the boundaries of the state. The Internet protocols do not care about national boundaries and many of the networks are transnational in scope. Internet services are completely different from the old telephone and broadcasting monopolies, which were built to serve a national territory and often owned by the state. The interconnected pieces of the Internet are owned by private actors, and the Internet protocols create a software-defined virtual space that only respects logical boundaries, not jurisdictional or political ones. There have, of course, been communication technologies that cross state boundaries for centuries, but the Internet is not cross-border; it is truly global. Its standards and identifier resources were defined and implemented without regard to national territories or jurisdictions. An Internet Protocol address is just a string of numbers; there is no ‘country code’ as there was in telephone numbers. A domain name also works globally, whether you are in Delhi or Djibouti or Detroit. The Internet routes data packets independently of national borders, following the most efficient path in the global virtual space. When you are communicating with a website, the network really doesn’t care whether it is across the street or across the ocean. Global liberalisation of the telecommunication industries has created enterprises and interconnection arrangements providing transnational services.

Convergence

A third reason why Internet changes policy is encapsulated by the term digital convergence. This refers to the absorption of all media forms by networked digital computers. Voice, video and data communications used to be distinct technologies operating in different industries. This made it logical to try to regulate them under separate legal and regulatory regimes. As communications media have become digitised, they have all converged on the Internet protocols. The Internet provides a single platform for multiple functions and media; it is now our post office, our television broadcaster, our movie theatre, our radio station, our telephone network, our bookstore, our library, our government services delivery vehicle, our retail shopping mall. It is also the site of newer media forms such as social networking sites, global mapping services, instant messaging applications and peer-to-peer file sharing. Convergence forces us to reassess the applicability of older models of regulation and governance, and often leads to institutional change.

Irrelevance of National Sovereignty

In responding to the policy challenges of the Internet, many developing countries try to reassert their ‘sovereignty’. Instead of embracing the changes brought by globalised information and communications, they try to turn the clock back. At an international meeting this year, the Indian representatives tried to pass a rule that would require all Internet traffic for India to stay inside Indian borders. It was a futile attempt to make the Internet behave like the telephone system of 1975; bounded by territorial limits; centralised; regulated and restricted to one or two easily controlled players.

A territorialised, sovereignty-oriented approach to the Internet does not serve the interests of the people. It would kill off innovation and eliminate new business opportunities, creativity and growth generated by information services. It is a recipe for stagnation. Innovation and growth happened precisely because the Internet was not organised along national lines; because new services did not require prior permission or licenses from state authorities, but could evolve in response to a global market.

The problems of cyber crime are real, and we do need national authorities to arrest cyber criminals and put them in jail. The solutions to these problems will come from developing new, transnational methods of cooperation among businesses, law enforcement authorities and user rights groups – not from trying to force all communications into limited national boundaries.

There are also economic regulatory issues raised by the Internet, mainly trade policy issues. Here again, nationally-focussed policies are taking us down the wrong path. National governments tend to support protectionist policies that shield privileged businesses from transnational competition. Almost all of the attacks on Google in Europe, for example, are coming from old media industries that are economically threatened by new media forms. These protectionist actions hurt, not help, Internet users, who are actively embracing the free information services they get. It is the old newspapers or copyright holders or telephone companies who don’t like major economic transformation coming from a more open and globalised market.

Similarly, if there is to be privacy in cyberspace, it will have to come from protections and agreements that are transnational in scope, and are aimed at controlling and limiting the debilitating attempt by governments to gain greater cyber-espionage and cyber-weapons capabilities. The more we empower and strengthen national governments, the more we will make cyberspace a dangerous and militarised space. If Americans won’t buy Chinese products (or vice-versa) and Chinese won’t buy Indian products (or vice-versa) because of ‘national security’ concerns, we will severely limit the intense competition that has pushed prices down and made advanced technology more affordable to all.

The Internet revolution really means that public communication is no longer a domain subject to national sovereignty. It is a fully globalised arena where national boundaries are irrelevant and people can, in the famous words of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘seek, receive and impart information through any medium regardless of frontiers.’ In this new world, sovereignty belongs not to the state, but to the individual users of the Internet. Insofar as their usage is going to be regulated or controlled, it should only be done by open, participatory institutions to which the users themselves have delegated their authority. Older intergovernmental institutions like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), where only governments are represented, are not the right vehicles for regulating the Internet.

We need to form an alliance among transnational civil society and business to confront the pressures from national governments to control the Internet. We need to make it a space where open markets and free trade in information services prevail, and where the problems posed by the Internet can be solved directly by the people who actually use the Internet.

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Author

Dr Milton Mueller

Dr Milton Mueller is Professor at Syracuse University School of Information Studies. He has conducted research on the political economy of telecommunications and the Internet for 25 years. His widely read book ‘Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace (MIT Press, 2002)’ provided the first scholarly account of how the battles over domain names led to an institutional innovation known as ICANN. His latest book, ‘Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance (MIT Press, 2010)’ is a historical and theoretical challenge to the territorial nation-state’s control of communication-information policy.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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